Sunday, 14 April 2013

When We Beat Thatcher : The grassroots, rank & file and unofficial campaigns that beat the 'Iron Lady'

(This was my Morning Star piece for 12-Apr-2013. Usually they appear on The Morning Star website as well as in the print edition, but they were a bit busy and missed this off the Website this week)  

The Mail demand  we cry over Thatcher’s death. Self righteous Tories want national tears  , busily peeling onions to fake  their own emotions. Labour MPs try  looking somber, supressing smiles flickering at the sides of their mouths. Spontaneous street parties kick off from Bristol to Glasgow, singing what the Mail called a “chorus of hatred”.

All these conflicting emotions , but one agreement: We are sad or happy about Thatcher because she won. They are sad to lose their victorious champion, we celebrate our enemies’ loss.

That’s the big picture: Thanks to breaking the NUM and shackling unions with laws Thatcher severely weakened the oppostion. We live in a world she made –  perhaps a world  she broke - where  privatisation , deregulation and deindustrialisation gave us City dominance,  growing inequality, housing crises and poverty

But this wasn’t all one sided. We won battles while we were driven  back in the war:

Thatcher always faced some defeats. She won the Miner’s Strike, but in 1983 , after a month long strike, Thatcher gave water workers a decent pay rise. Wildcat action by waterworkers in the North two years earlier prepared ground for the strike. Thatcher paid up before suspended water maintenance made our taps and toilets sieze up. Many  people say  strikes are useless in our post industrial age, often while eating a slice of toast and drinking a cup of tea. But the electricity and bread in the toaster are both manufactured goods. Water comes through an industrial process. It’s harder to pontificate about post industrialisation while eating cold stale bread and drinking the juice from your last can of pineapple chunks. In the dark.

Thatcher lost  much more often in the latter part of her reign : Winning the miners strike hammered the unions, but did not break them. Within three years the unions bit back and destroyed Thatcher’s annointed successor: In 1987 Thatcher appointed a new  Health & Social Security Minister, John Moore: He had film star good looks and right wing ideas. He was called “Mr Privatisation” .  There were serious discussions about Thatcher retiring to let  “Golden Boy”  John Moore take over  . In 1988  Moore and Thatcher  faced a series of unofficial , semi official and official pay strikes by nurses: Fighting  these at the same time as trying to increase NHS privatisation and implement health cuts became a political nightmare : “Thatcher Frightened of meeting nurses” ran one Times headline. Nurses made the Iron Lady look weak. The nurses strikes were scrappy and spontaneous and wildly popular. Thatcher tried using her personal authority to face them down ,  attackinh  nurses in Parliament, but lost. Finally, John Moore , who seemed to be disintegrating , threw money at the nurses. He then disappeared from the Cabinet, and then Parliament. Thatcher’s favourite “Golden Boy” has never been heard of since.

More strikes from supposedly “broken” unions nipped at Thatcher. In 1989 tube drivers showed anti-strike laws were not invincible: They took several, completely unofficial days strike action . Unlike the nurses, tube drivers were supposedly “unpopular”. The Evening Standard ran barmy propaganda about Civil Servants beating the strikes by punting up the Thames or skateboarding across London. But the secret mass meetings kept happening, the strikes remained solid, and the drivers won more pay.

The same year Thatcher faced another health strike : Ambulance crews took the most extraordinary action. First they struck. Then they occupied their stations and ran the ambulance service themselves with cash raised by the same networks who supported the striking miners. Thatcher talked tough. She sent in Ken Clarke to call the Ambulance unions a “sick joke”. They tried sending in the army to run ambulances. Then they admitted defeat. Clarke also tried to win back some popularity by introducing defibrillators into all ambulances – up until then they were only in ambulances thanks to fundraising by the crews themselves : If you are saved from a heart attack by an ambulance  defibrillator that’s thanks to striking union members.

Even before the Poll Tax campaign persuaded Tory Ministers to ditch Thatcher, there was a rising tide of dispute. There are three points about the anti-poll tax campaign, which delivered the final blow. First it was completely ‘unofficial’ , openly attacked by  Labour’s leadership, mostly ignored by union leaders. Secondly, it involved massive community organising by committed activists- socialists, anarchists, every possible member of the awkward squad. Thirdly, all this broad, community based movement came to a head at the Poll Tax demo of 1990. The march was massive, but just a few hundred people sat down outside Downing Street. Police attempts to push them out of the way sparked a riot, which most of Thatcher’s ministers now admit spelled the end for Maggie. The people now demanding respect for Maggie actuallyditched her in fear. If her funeral was really going to represent her life, a bevy of Tory ministers would have to rush forward at the end and throw her coffin into the street. A year before the  protest, Thatcher had steel gates erected at Downing Street, showing her growing fear of  the people. The sit down that started the riot that brought her down happened at those gates: They are her monument. Like Ozymandias statue, they were meant to show strength, but actually show weakness.

There are two points I am making here. The first is that even the strongest enemy can be beaten. The second is that much of the action that beat her was unofficial, or semi official grassroots stuff . Thatcher was stopped by democratic mass movements from below. Many of the battles that beat her were also not defensive: They were succesful strikes for higher pay, not a defense against cuts.

Unfortunately, the official oppostion of the Labour party  wasted some of this victory by losing the 1992 election.  It seems to me that the  spontaneous, grass roots protests over Thatcher’s funeral are a fitting memorial,  because they look like the movement that got her out of office.

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